By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Monday signed bipartisan bills establishing a first-ever process for collecting and tracking sexual assault evidence kits, proposals that stalled for years over partisan bickering despite widespread support among law enforcement agencies, victims’ advocates and others across Wisconsin.
Evers’ signature of the measures, which drew praise from Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and Republican lawmakers, completes a years-long struggle to create protocols in the law for processing and retaining the kits, which can provide integral evidence in sexual assault cases.
Evers said the new laws will increase transparency and accountability in the state’s testing process “to help prevent future delays in justice for victims while empowering survivors with resources to track their kits directly.”
Kaul praised the laws, saying they would help to provide justice for survivors and put violent criminals behind bars.
“Wisconsin will be safer because this bill has become law,” Kaul said in a statement.
Republican state Sen. Robert Cowles, who sponsored the bill creating the protocols, said it was designed to “systematically prevent a testing backlog of sexual assault kits from ever happening again.”
Tens of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits in the U.S. have gone untested for a variety of reasons. Sometimes prosecutors decide cases are too weak to pursue or victims refuse to cooperate. Victim advocates have been pushing for years to get the kits tested in hopes of identifying serial offenders.
The news comes more than six years after the state Department of Justice discovered more than 6,000 untested sexual assault kits across the state, some of which were several decades old.
Kaul’s predecessor, Republican Brad Schimel, started testing about 4,500 Wisconsin kits in 2017, work that was completed in 2019.
There have been 20 prosecutions against 19 offenders resulting from the testing of backlogged kits, including six convictions and 10 pending cases, the Department of Justice said.
The new laws create deadlines and protocols for the collection of sexual assault evidence and requirements pertaining to how long the kits must be stored at the state crime lab. Health care officials who collect the evidence from a person who wants to report it must notify law enforcement within 24 hours and that agency then has 72 hours to collect the kit and 14 days to get it to the crime lab.
There are different timelines for those who choose not to report to law enforcement. Those kits must be saved at the crime lab for 10 years in case the victim changes their mind about reporting.
The Legislature passed the measures this year after they stalled in the Assembly last session.